As if there weren’t enough pathogens, predators, injuries and illnesses to wreak havoc on your birds I find that sometimes chickens are their own worst enemies when it comes to staying alive. I’ve had dozens of hatches with broody hens and most have gone smoothly. Of course, there have been exceptions: the first timer who killed her chicks as they hatched and a couple who have abandoned their eggs just prior to hatch due to being infested with mites (I was able to come to the rescue in both those cases).
At 5, Aurora, a mix of Silver Laced Polish, Silver Spangled Appenzeller Spitzhauben and Easter Egger is my oldest hen. She’s regularly goes broody and usually once a year I let her hatch chicks. In 2019, she had two sets of chicks and last year I talked her out of any forays into motherhood.
This year, Nigella, one of my frizzles had chicks for the first time at the ripe old age of four and I also inherited 15 chicks from eggs I donated to an elementary school hatching program. Twenty-four chicks seemed like a full house to me, but my hens said otherwise. At least six of them have gone broody and most have been easy to break by lifting them out of the nest boxes a couple of times a day and making sure they are sleeping on the roost bars at night.
Aurora had gone through this routine with me on and off throughout the summer. As soon as my broody pen was vacant I put her on eggs. It was a spur of the moment decision: I gave her 4 eggs one day and 8 the next, hoping that they’d all hatch within a day of each other.
My preference is to start hens on eggs at the end of the week so when the chicks hatch, 21 days later, it’s just in time for my weekend off work so I can monitor them. Unfortunately, Aurora started sitting on Sunday so her chicks wouldn’t hatch till I was back at work.
I also had a minor surgery scheduled for day 14-15 of the incubation. I figured by then everything would be running like clockwork and there wouldn’t be much required of me. Wrong. The broody pen Aurora was in, consists of a 2’x 6’ area cordoned off in the supply part of my coop (inaccessible to the flock) with a pop door opening out to a 4’x 9’ pen contained within my 30’x 40’ pen for the flock. I house experienced hens like Aurora in a dog crate with the eggs and open the pop door for the day to allow free access to a dust bath and to stretch their legs. Food and water were a few feet away from her crate inside the coop.
For some inexplicable reason Aurora was so determined to incubate those eggs that she didn’t get off them, not once, for 21 days without forcing me to lift her off. So that’s what I did. Every day I looked for evidence that she eaten or pooped – none. This meant I had to pull down the plastic fencing barrier, step into her cramped area, then gently lean over (my 61-year-old knees were feeling it) and work my hands under her, making sure I could lift her straight up without any of the eggs getting disturbed or her kicking them. Then I would push her through the pop door hoping she’d enjoy her few minutes of freedom.
Most hens usually get off the nest once or twice a day for anywhere from 5-15 minutes. It’s their one opportunity to eat like a wolverine, drink, dust bath, stretch their legs and deposit one giant, stinky poop. Broody poops are infamous for their size and odour.
For the first week she ran back to the nest without eating or drinking. She only produced two small poops, one outside and one at the back of the nest (which I was able to scoop up).
Hens have been known to die on their nest; their dedication is so fierce they’d starve themselves to death or became infested with mites because they refused to dust bath. Aurora seemed to be looking for a medal for most single-minded broody hen of the year.
In the second week I tried putting out more tempting food: cantaloupe, grapes, tofu, yoghurt – anything that would keep her hydrated. She left some, she picked away at some, but she never ate a decent meal.
Of course, the date for my surgery loomed and it looked like I was going to have to step up and play midwife. Despite being sedated, medicated, dealing with stitches and fatigue I was out there every day picking her up off the nest, coaxing her to eat, drink and poop. I could feel her getting thinner and willed her to make it to the finish line without having sacrificed her own health to bring new lives into the world.
On day 18 she went out to the pen (of course, with my assistance) and ate a bit of canned cat food, stretched, squawked and headed back to the eggs without even drinking some water, which I left in the doorway of her crate so she couldn’t miss it. I went off to do some chores and came back a few minutes later to see she’d come back outside again. She picked away at some of the cat food, lay down on the ground – without really dust bathing – and had a few sips of water before getting back on the eggs.
Some hens poop in the nest, messing up the eggs, but her eggs were as pristine as when I put them under her. I kept my fingers crossed that she wouldn’t lose her resolve before the chicks hatched. I did have a backup plan: one of my young hens had been broody for a couple of weeks. I’d been lifting her off the nest daily, but in a pinch she might accept the eggs. I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case as Copper is smaller than Aurora and might not be able to cover a dozen eggs easily.
On day 20, her story took a bit of a turn. I lifted Aurora off the nest and she headed straight for the end of the pen where she’d made a half-hearted hollow in the soil the day before. She threw herself down and had a full-on dust bath. After five minutes she got up and had a snack of dried cranberries and sunflower seeds, then paused by the pop door. Just when I thought Aurora was headed back to the nest she ran back to the dust bath. I knew she didn’t have mites because there’d been no evidence of any of the crawlies on my hands or arms when I’d picked her up or on the eggs either. I know how I feel without a shower for a day or two, so I didn’t blame her for wanting to really have a stretch and do what she could to feel clean.
If anyone doubts that chickens are social animals, they should have seen the welcoming she got from the flock. Tarek, my rooster, said hello through the fence and one of my oldest hens dug her own dust hole adjacent to Aurora’s in the adjoining run. They spent the next ten minutes chatting away and occasionally another hen would come by to put in her two cents.
I was beginning to worry that the lure of the outside world might tempt her from the eggs, but after twenty long minutes she returned to the nest. That one foray outside was longer than all the time she’d spent off the nest in the previous 19 days combined. She must have felt that the finish line was in reach and she needed to do whatever was required to get her there.
On the morning of day 21 I checked on Aurora and found someone peeking out from under her. I lifted her off the nest for a minute and discovered two more chicks and a couple that were working their way out of the eggs. I made a split-second decision to remove the cardboard tray they were in, which I managed to accomplish without cracking an egg or disturbing my hen.
The raised sides of the tray keeps all the eggs together but can work against the chicks post-hatch. One time, I found three chicks had climbed out, but couldn’t get back into, the nest. One had died, one was fine to pop back under the hen and the third chick took thirty minutes of warming in the house till I could revive it to the point it was safe to give back to its mum.
By evening I heard more peeping but decided not to interfere. The following morning Aurora was distressed that one of the chicks had squeezed through the mesh on the crate door and couldn’t figure out how to get back in. I popped the chick back inside, but it was clear Aurora was done with sitting and heading straight for the food bowl. She snarfed down mouthfuls of crumbles and water, forgetting to call her chicks over, who were left to figure it out on their own.
She’d abandoned the last two eggs: a small blue one and a large olive one marked with an ‘x’. I tucked them under my broody hen, Copper. At dusk I candled the eggs and found both were unfertilized.
For the next four weeks Aurora and her ten chicks were confined to their indoor/outdoor space of 50 square feet. They seemed content and Aurora wasn’t signaling that she wanted to rejoin the flock. I usually let my hens integrate with the main group when their chicks are two or three weeks old. I like to be there when that happens just to monitor that all goes smoothly: seeing that the chicks can navigate from their smaller pen out to the big one and back, and to make sure that they are safe from the older birds.
I’ve heard lots of stories of adult chickens killing another hen’s chicks, but I haven’t seen any signs of aggression toward the babies in dozens of my hatches. There are, of course, some scuffles between the broody hen and other hens as they re-establish the pecking order or when the mother makes it clear for everyone else to respect her offspring. That usually gets sorted out quickly and the adults are more interested in how to reach the chicks’ feed, then the chicks themselves. I find integrating young birds with their mother makes for a seamless transition back to the main coop.
The chicks are now five weeks old and have been fully accepted by the flock. They’ve also had many opportunities to check out the teenaged birds that are living in the adjacent pen. At some point, Aurora will head back to the main coop, her chicks in tow. Chicks are the highlight of the season for me. As much as I’ve love to keep them all most of them will be off to new homes in a few months.